Do they have corporate training at your place of employment? Does your company send you to boring seminars hosted by some balding guy whose side job is hosting TV kitchen-utensil infomercials? Or do you get shipped to expensive nature retreats to experience the joy of mosquitoes and leeches?
Here at the sanctified editorial offices of Edmunds.com, we're spared such ridiculous drivel. For us, corporate training consists of simple chanting ("Edmunds.com good, all other car sites bad.") and attending racing school.
Not too bad of a gig, eh? Now, it wasn't easy convincing our accounting department to fork over thousands of dollars to send eight editorial staff members of Edmunds.com to attend racing school. Carefully thought-out arguments were made, along with strategic offerings of Krispy Kreme doughnuts.
In March 2000, we attended a two-day session at Danny McKeever's Fast Lane School. We chose Fast Lane primarily because of its proximity to our Santa Monica, Calif., office. It is based at Willow Springs International Raceway in Rosamond, Calif., about 90 miles north of Los Angeles. The school was also attractive because we occasionally conduct instrumented testing on the tight Streets of Willow road course, adjacent to the facility's bigger, higher speed track, and the better we know the racing line, the more effective we are at evaluating the vehicles.
McKeever is the archetype So-Cal driving instructor. He's got the super tan, the easy nature, the cool shades and the quick-draw celebrity name drop. The name-dropping is understandable; McKeever's Fast Lane school has been the official school for the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach Celebrity race for more than 15 years. For each of these years, Fast Lane has been responsible for teaching ego-fragile celebrity drivers how to actually drive on a racetrack.
One of the main benefits to Fast Lane (besides the possibility of having celebrities as your classmates) is being able to race at Willow Springs and its smaller track, the Streets of Willow. Willow Springs has been languishing in the Southern California desert since 1953. The big track's nine-turn layout, which starts on the desert floor and roams into the adjacent foothills, allows plenty of speed, with high-powered racecars reaching average lap speeds of more than 100 mph.
If you have attended other racing schools before, Fast Lane will have a rather homely feel to it. Since Rosamond is located in California scrub desert, Willow Springs doesn't have the visual appeal of tracks like Laguna Seca or Road Atlanta. Additionally, most big-name schools have two or three different types of cars for students to drive. Fast Lane's exclusive car is the rather plebian Toyota Celica.
But don't be too quick to dis the Celica. These are the same racecars that are used for the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach Celebrity races. Fast Lane currently uses sixth-generation Celicas, not the new-for-2000 Celicas. While it might sound appealing to drive one of the new 180-horsepower models, Fast Lane's older Celicas are probably better cars with which to learn racing.
Modifications are kept to a minimum. The 2.2-liter engines are virtually stock except for a modified exhaust system. Further changes are made to the suspension, brakes and tires. Each car also has a roll bar, racing harnesses, and a fire-extinguisher system.
Due to the torque of the engines and the well-balanced chassis, the Celicas are very easy to drive. The brakes provide excellent stopping power, but they aren't equipped with ABS, so care must be taken to avoid wheel lockup.
Both new and experienced drivers will benefit from the Celicas. For new drivers, the cars' predictable nature is helpful for learning the basics of racing such as braking points and apexes. The engine's torque curve is also useful. On the Streets of Willow, for instance, the Celicas can be left in third gear the entire lap without any major degradation in lap time. Just try that in a new Celica GT-S where all the power hangs out between 6,000 and 8,000 rpm.
More experienced drivers will sometimes get sloppy in more powerful cars, using horsepower to cover up poor racing technique. You can't do that with Fast Lane's Celicas. To take these cars to their absolute limits, good technique and concentration are required.
Based on our experience, Fast Lane favors getting students as much track time as possible, rather than spending time in the classroom or performing slow-speed drills through cones. This could be good or bad, depending on your point of view.
The first day of our two-day school was held on the Streets of Willow. The morning started out with classroom instruction, with McKeever and his staff discussing items such as hand position, seating position, and heel-and-toe downshifting.
Our staff's familiarity with performance driving varied widely, with some of us having zero experience while others had participated in other driving schools and amateur races. Our more experienced drivers immediately noticed the rather simple approach to classroom discussion. Perhaps Fast Lane assumed that being automotive writers, we knew the basics of vehicle dynamics, but standard topics (like apexes, understeer and oversteer, for example) received little detailed attention.
While we didn't expect to sit in a stuffy classroom all day, most of us felt some additional discussion would have been helpful for our novice drivers, perhaps using some more advanced diagrams and/or videotape to more clearly explain the concepts of driving dynamics.
After the initial classroom discussion, Fast Lane gave us quick tours of the Streets of Willow. The Streets is used primarily for training and practice. Its tight corners and layout are perfect for learning car dynamics and racing technique. Like the classroom instruction, the tours were brief. Bring on the Celicas!
After we belted ourselves in, the Fast Lane instructors put us into groups of three or four cars. We then headed out onto the Streets and performed "follow the leader" exercises. This is a common driving school routine where an instructor in a lead car slowly drives the correct racing line around the course. By following the instructor in their own cars, the students can get a feel for where they should be driving on the track.
This is a good exercise, but its main problem lies in the fact that only the first student in line gets a perfect view of what the instructor is doing. The rest of the students are following the line set by the student in front of them. And like a "Chinese secret," the further back the student is, the bigger the deviation from the correct line. The solution to this is to rotate the students so that each student gets an undiluted view of the instructor's proper racing line, but the Fast Lane instructors failed to do this.
After the exercises, Fast Lane let us loose. Since the Celicas have passenger seats, the instructors were able to ride along with us. This was clearly the best way to learn, and Fast Lane's instructors were very willing to ride along, watch what we were doing and then offer advice to improve our skills.
At the same time, McKeever had a few of us at a time accompany him to the skidpad. On the safe confines of the skidpad (a flat slab of pavement with a 200-foot circle painted on it), McKeever demonstrated the effects of throttle input and how it affects both understeer and oversteer.
McKeever also used the skidpad to demonstrate how to perform 180-degree turns. Yes, you too can be a stunt driver! With the skidpad sprayed with water, each of us got a chance to try the turns both driving forward and backward. All of us agreed it was fun, but we also felt that this exercise had little application towards the real world of driving.
J-turns aside, we all felt we had learned quite a bit by the end of the first day. The Streets of Willow is a perfect course to start out on. About the only thing it doesn't prepare you for is the sheer speed of Willow's big track.
This is where our second day of school was held. Even in the school's Celicas (which can't have more than 150 horsepower), we never used any gear lower than third. This track is about going fast. Taking a turn at 90 mph isn't more physically difficult than taking one at 30 mph, but it certainly poses more of a mental challenge. Your sense of self-preservation has a nasty habit of inhibiting your progress.
In terms of our agenda, the second day on the big track was mostly a continuation of the first. Fast Lane's instructors once again gave us tours and then performed follow-the-leader. And once again, we received impressive amounts of seat time. Nearly all of our editorial staff had stupid grins plastered on their faces by the end of the day. Yes, racing is quite fun. Over the course of two days, we estimate that each of us did about 250 miles worth of laps.
After our two-day session, it was clear that our experienced drivers enjoyed the school more than our novice drivers. Since our experienced drivers already knew the basics, they were able to hone their abilities using Fast Lane's generous seat time. But we thought our novice drivers would have been better served by attending other racing schools before coming to Fast Lane. Other schools we have attended offer better classroom instruction and drills more suited to learning the basics. But you can't have lunch with John Elway or Ashley Judd anywhere else but at Danny McKeever's Fast Lane Racing School.